Another Super Bowl dream goes west for Marino

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The Independent Online
It is one of the cruelties of sport that the best people do not always play in the biggest games, but there is little consolation for Dan Marino this morning in knowing he is not alone. George Best never played in an FA Cup final, Barry Richards never appeared in a Lord's Test, and it looks increasingly as though Marino is destined never to grace another Super Bowl.

Another remarkable season went west on Sunday, when Marino's Miami Dolphins were beaten 22-21 in San Diego, who now advance to the AFC Championship game on Sunday.

The gridiron game can have particularly vicious ways of inflicting its disappointments, and so it was for Marino. After another superb afternoon, which included three touchdown passes, Marino could only watch his team's tiring defence succumb to a late, and ultimately decisive, final drive from the Chargers.

Striding impatiently along the sideline, he was as powerless as the Dolphins fans, who have nurtured hopes all season that theirs would be the first franchise to reach a Super Bowl in its own back yard.

Marino did get the ball back with 35 seconds remaining, and gave the kicker, Pete Stoyanovich, the chance to steal a famous victory. But a 48-yard field-goal attempt went wide to the right, and with it Marino's hopes.

The Dolphins quarterback knows he is running out of chances. When he took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl as a precocious 23-year-old 10 years ago, he was entitled to counter the disappointment that came with defeat with the thought that, given his gifts,and the franchise's Super Bowl record, it would be only a matter of time before he returned.

He hasn't, and the Dolphins' mediocre return in the intervening decade suggests the veneration which their head coach, Don Shula, attracts has much more to do with his brilliant early record than his recent teams.

Marino has done little in his 12 years in the league to dispel the notion that he is one of the greatest quarterbacks of his time, and perhaps the most accurate passer of any time. It is just his misfortune that, in his era, Shula has been unable to assemble the truly commanding defence or consistent running game that are prerequisites for championship-winning sides.

To make matters worse, the Dolphins appeared to have the game against the Chargers won by half-time. They led 21-6, but the game turned on a play early in the third quarter when Bernie Parmalee, the Dolphins running back, was snared in his own end-zone. The momentum changed, convincing the Chargers they could stop the Miami running game, and the two points gained were ultimately the two to win the game.

The Chargers will be underdogs when they confront the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium, but they beat the Steelers in the final game of the regular season, and may hold the advantage if the game becomes a shoot-out. It is already being billed as a sideshow to Sunday's main event, the NFC Championship game between San Francisco and Dallas.

This game has produced the Super Bowl winners for 10 years, and the 49ers' status as slight favourites has been enhanced by the hamstring injury Emmitt Smith aggravated in the play-off victory over Green Bay.

The stream of information and disinformation that followed would have done the Pentagon proud, but the most telling verdict came from Kevin O'Neill, the Dallas trainer. "There is no question Emmitt won't be well by Sunday. He had three weeks to get readyfor this game and he wasn't well," he said.

NFL play-offs: NFC: Dallas 35 Green Bay 9. AFC: San Diego 22 Miami 21.